Illustration: Janet Mac
Instagram game filters could make augmented reality more mainstream, experts say.
I was clicking through my Instagram Stories recently and, at first, it was business as usual, at least as far as Pandemic Instagram goes. My editor was showing off her ill culinary skills. A friend of mine was serving face through the reflection in his bedroom mirror. Another zoomed in and out of their face to communicate their simultaneous boredom and anxiety.
But then I saw something I’d never seen before. Someone I follow was using their face to cut through watermelons, pineapples, strawberries, and pears.
Well, not literally. They were playing a game on Instagram called Cut Fruit, which is inspired by the once-popular mobile game Fruit Ninja.
In the Instagram version of the game, you slice through a variety of fruits to earn points. Instead of using your fingers to control the gameplay, though, you use your face. And once you’ve earned a score worthy of sharing with your friends, you can post it to Instagram Stories, just like the filters that make you look like a dog or tell you which Disney character you are.
Cut Fruit is one of hundreds of Instagram game filters that have popped up on the app since last year, when Instagram first launched a program called Spark AR that allows users to create face filters and submit them to be used on the platform.
The variety of Instagram games is pretty limited, but will nevertheless have your face doing some pretty crazy things in pursuit of points. There’s a Vespa game that puts your face in the helmet of a person riding a motorcycle through the desert, dodging potholes and traffic cones by tilting your head side to side. There’s Blink to Jump, where you’re a skateboarder cruising through town and you have to blink in order to jump over boulders. And there’s Eater Game, where you use your mouth to gobble green balls floating down from the sky to earn points.
All of these Instagram filters are a form of augmented reality (AR) gaming, which integrates a game’s audio and visual components into the real world in real time. AR burst into the mainstream in 2016 with the hit mobile game Pokémon Go. That game used mobile cameras and GPS to allow players to find and catch Pokémon, which appeared on screen as if they were in the player’s real-world location. By the end of 2019, the game had grossed $3 billion in revenue with its in-app purchases, though the initial hype had died down around 2017, according to Business of Apps.
I tried out Trap Bop, an Instagram augmented reality game where you dance to the beat of a song. I wasn’t that great at it, but it was fun. It was created by filter artist and musician iam_burrell.
There hasn’t been another hit AR game like Pokemon Go. Even the company that created it, San Francisco-based Niantic, didn’t have as much success with its Harry Potter: Wizards Unite game that came out last summer. But some experts say that AR could move further into the mainstream through Instagram’s game filters because the social media platform makes the technology so accessible.
“It’s a weird situation because you’re talking about games that people don’t necessarily like playing on their own, but it’s kind of a cute thing to make a video out of.”
“I think the Instagram game filters are really fun and I think they create awareness for augmented reality and the possibilities of augmented reality,” Stephan Lukosch, PhD, associate professor of applied immersive games at the University of Canterbury, tells OneZero. “And with that it becomes accessible to a larger or broader audience.”
Jesse Schell, distinguished professor of game design at Carnegie Mellon University, says the blend of augmented reality gaming and Instagram are a “good combination.”
“It’s a weird situation because you’re talking about games that people don’t necessarily like playing on their own,” he says, “but it’s kind of a cute thing to make a video out of. It’s sort of taken that long of a time in order to have an augmented reality experience that people actually want to [play].”
Most of the filters on Instagram are simpler games targeted to a mass audience, which potentially makes them a great vehicle for getting more people to AR. That players can easily share their AR gaming experiences on Instagram Stories could create further awareness about the technology. But some experts aren’t totally convinced that’s going to lead an expansion in people who seek out AR gaming outside of Instagram.
“Instagram game filters seem to get popular as a casual form of gaming. [They] may continue increasing in popularity as [they are] an addition to a largely popular platform,” says Ren Bozgeyikli, PhD, assistant professor of game development at the University of Arizona. Although, he says, “this may not cause an increase in [the] virtual or spatial augmented reality user base.”
Instagram isn’t the first social media platform to introduce AR games. Snapchat has included AR games that users play with their face in its photo story feature since 2016. In 2017, the company launched Lens Studio, which allows developers to create AR filters for Snapchat in much the same way that Spark AR does for Instagram. And last year, it launched its first original game (which does not use AR), Bitmoji Party, in a move to turn the app into a gaming platform.
But Instagram Stories, the space on the platform where face gaming happens, has 400 million daily users, double the amount of daily users of Snapchat’s photo story feature, which means it has more power to expose people to AR.
While AR gaming could benefit from a presence on Instagram, the reverse is also true. Like its parent company, Facebook, Instagram has gained popularity partly by regularly adding new features that make it more versatile.
Instagram started out as a photo-sharing platform nearly 10 years ago, but it’s grown to become so much more since then. Users can create their own channel to publish videos or watch others on IGTV. They can shop in the app. They can stream videos. And now they can play AR video games and share the results with their friends.
This is the first time Instagram has hosted gaming, but it’s not the first time for its parent company. Facebook has tried several times to break into gaming, with varying success. Its first version of a gaming platform catered to simple social games like Zynga’s popular FarmVille and Mafia Wars. When they were wildly popular in the late 2000s and early 2010s, they brought in as much as 19% of Facebook’s revenue, but the exclusive partnership between the two companies ended in 2012. In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR, a virtual reality gaming and entertainment platform, which hasn’t paid off quite yet. And in 2016, it launched Instant Games for Messenger. The company announced last year it was migrating those games to the Facebook app to help make Messenger “faster, lighter, and simpler.”
So Instagram game filters could help Facebook strengthen its position in the gaming space against competitors like Snapchat. And it could help launch a revolution in gaming in the meantime.